WE SHALL BE CHANGED
CHRIST’S RESURRECTION & OURS (1 Corinthians 15:12-20)
For some years now I’ve been a member of the Austinmer/Thirroul sub-branch of the RSL. When I joined our oldest member was Noel. My first real contact with him was when I visited him the day his wife died. He was happy to see me but told me that he was ‘not a religious man’; which I took as meaning he didn’t want any prayers. However, he did later tell everyone how I’d just offered ‘a silent prayer.’
Sometime later he was admitted to hospital where I used to visit him. It was there that he asked me to tell him what happens when we die and, on another visit, actually asked me to say a prayer for him.
After that he moved into a care facility where I’d visit him every week. He celebrated his 100thbirthday there, and after it he said to me: ‘Now, Bob, I want you to do the honours for me – you know, send me off properly.’ I told him I’d be proud to do it.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to conduct his funeral because the same day he died we got word that Marilyn’s sister had also died, and we made a rush trip to Missouri for her funeral. So, I arranged for Annette Hawken to take Noel’s funeral. Later, when we compared notes, I mentioned that at Marilyn’s sister’s funeral the final music had been her favourite song: Because he lives, I can face tomorrow. Annette then told me that Noel had gone out, as he’d requested, to Vera Lynne singing: Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye.
I had to smile to myself – the difference between someone raised in the strongly religious tradition of the American Midwest and my non- religious mate, whose tentative exploration of faith was expressed in the words of that song: wish me luck as you wave me goodbye
I think those two responses reflect the enormous diversity of opinion that exists in our society today. Whereas expressions of Christian belief once dominated funerals, nowadays, funerals have become celebrations of life, and most are conducted by civil celebrants. The nearest we get to expressions of faith is usually an agnostic wish me luck, because most would say we really don’t know what’s beyond.
The subject of whether there is a life beyond this present physical life has always intrigued humankind. Every generation, culture and religion has had its own teachings about it. The traditional Christian teaching of the afterlife is something that developed gradually in the Bible. The Old Testament actually says very little about it. But in the four centuries between the writing of the Old Testament and the New there developed a strong belief in a resurrection of believers, and by the time of Jesus most of the people of Israel believed it implicitly.
Christian belief followed on from this. Most of our information comes from the New Testament, and especially from passages like 1st Corinthians chapter 15, where Paul talks about Christ’s Resurrection being the firstfruitsor the forerunner of ours.
Now most people, if they have a belief in an afterlife, tend to think of it in terms of the immortality of the soul – the body dies but the soul lives on in some amorphous state. But the Bible speaks of our final destiny as a bodily resurrection like Jesus’ resurrection – one that the Bible calls ‘a spiritual body’, not subject to the limitations and decay of our present body, but one that has been ‘transformed like unto [Jesus’] glorious body.’
It also speaks of this happening in the context of Christ’s return in glory, when the Kingdom of Heaven will finally be fully established, and it indicates that not everyone will be raised to everlasting blessing. Jesus talked about ‘the resurrection of life’ but also of ‘the resurrection of judgement’ for those who reject him and his salvation.
As to the details of what this entails, we have to admit, like the Apostle Paul, ‘that we see through a glass darkly’ – meaning we’ve only been given a vague outline. Over the centuries Christians have tried to pull together those scattered references and form them into a coherent doctrine that answers the various questions they raise.
Questions like, if our resurrection happens after Christ’s return, what happens to us in the meantime. Do our souls just go to sleep? Do they enter into a disembodied state – ‘absent from the body, present with the Lord’ as Paul put it? And so there developed theories and doctrines like purgatory, limbus infantum, soul sleep and others,
Many theologians today, reflecting that the limitations of time and space that we live in don’t exist in that greater dimension of the spirit, think it means that then and there believers pass through physical death into a resurrection in God’s presence and into that greater life.
But, as I said before, the Bible only gives so much information on this. The important thing for us is not so much to get caught up in trying to work out all the details as it is to understand the essential principlesthat Jesus taughtthat for people of faith there will be a resurrection to life that is beyond anything we can possibly imagine and will fulfil those deep, inexpressible longings within us that are never able to be fulfilled by even the very best that this life offers.
Passages like this one from 1stCorinthians tell us thatour fear of death need be no more, because ‘where He is, there we shall be.’Paul says:‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.’ For him, the great underlying message was that deathno longer has any sting, and therefore we should not fear it.
And at the heart of this wonderful hope is the teaching that we shall be changed. The final verse of this morning’s reading talks about Christ being ‘the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.’ It means that Christ’s resurrection was the prototypeof what ours will be. Philippians 3:21 says that Jesus will: ‘transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.’
And a little later in the chapter read to us today the Bible describes this resurrected body that awaits us in these words: ‘So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable … it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.’- like the body of a caterpillar metamorphosing in its cocoon and emerging as a beautiful butterfly.
Many of us have been fascinated by what is now called ‘near death experiences’- stories of people who have been pronounced clinically dead and have then resuscitated. This subject became popular following Dr Raymond Moody’s publication of his research into this subject in a book called Life after Life.
From the dozens of cases he researched of people who clinically died but later resuscitated, he discovered there were fifteen elements that constantly reappeared. They included: feeling themselves moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel and suddenly finding themselves outside of their own physical body, but then noticing that they still had a body,yet one with very different properties to their material body – one that seemed to be weightless and was able to pass through physical barriers and able to travel from one place to another almost instantaneously – yet still a body - a spiritual body.
Then being aware of the presence of relatives and friends who had died, all them recognizable and without any of the blemishes that may have marred their former appearance. Finally, the most striking phenomenon of all, becoming aware of a being of lightstanding before them –whom most of them immediately identified as Jesus, from whom emanates the most overwhelming feelings of love. This being, without speaking any words, causes them to evaluate their life and shows them an instantaneous playback of the events of their life.
Then, they are told that their time has not yet come and that they are to return to their physical existence. But they no longer want to because they are so overwhelmed by feelings of joy, love and peace.
I find the reference to ‘a spiritual body’in this research very interesting because that’s the very terminology that the Apostle Paul uses in Corinthians. What it actually means is beyond our current understanding, but Paul likened it to the sort of body with which Jesus rose from the dead – one that was recognisable, but no longer subject to the restrictions of a world of time and space.
My own interest in the subject came from several people I’ve known and admired who have related similar experiences to me. Months ago I told you about one of them – a retired missionary, who clinically died on a Friday, was laid in the morgue of the Katoomba hospital, and thanks to the insistence of his wife, who woke up on Sunday morning convinced he was still alive, was then found to be alive.
Later, he got to tell his story. But the thing I remember most clearly was his inability to find words to describe something so wonderful that he was devastated when he woke up to find himself still here.
He said that the only possible analogy he could think of was to imagine standing on the highest peak in the Swiss Alps, looking down on the most breath-taking vista, and hearing the most glorious music ever written performed by the world’s greatest choirs. And even that, he said, would not do it justice. No wonder the Apostle Paul summed up his attitude to life by saying: ‘for me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.’ For people of faithThere is nothing to fear.
I don’t think anyone has ever summed it all up better than C S Lewis, in the final words of his wonderful children’s books The Chronicles of Narnia. As he brings those seven volumes about the adventures of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy and to a close, he says: ‘For us this is the end of all the stories…But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world… had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: and in which every chapter is better than the one before.
Photo credit: thibaut-tiberghien on UnSplash